No one likes bad news-even when it might be important to our future. Often, we react to unwelcome information as if we wanted to ``kill the messenger'' who brought it. This came to mind recently as I watched the well-deserved induction of William B. ``Bill'' Thomas into the Tire Industry Hall of Fame during the National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association convention in Dallas.
As he made his way to the podium, I recalled how some in the industry reacted back in 1982to the news that Bill Thomas-then president of the American Retreaders' Association-was closing his Oakland, Calif., pas-senger tire shop.
In explaining his decision, Bill said so many radial casings were proving unacceptable that the future of passenger tire retreading was in question.
``Our present recovery rate is so low, we can't see a very bright future in radial passenger tire retreading,'' he said in the story I wrote.
That was blunt talk coming from the president of North America's largest retreaders' association and Bill knew it. And to his credit, he hadn't tried to duck the issue when I telephoned for details.
``If we're going to bring all this out in the open, let's do the job right,'' Bill said. He asked that I hold off my questions for an hour so he could assemble the shop's records. Then he promised to divulge the full story-and he did.
The principal stockholder in an Oakland-based chain of 42 Big O tire outlets that was selling 10,000 passenger retreads a month, Bill explained that his modern 500-unit-a-day plant had been operating at a loss.
Because passenger retreads were so important to its sales effort, the company would continue selling them but no longer produce them.
Bill said his shop's records and those of other firms he'd contacted showed fewer than one in 10 passenger radials was proving retreadable. That was double the rejection rate of the bias passenger tire which the industry was then phasing out. Most radials were being rejected, he explained, because of belt-edge separations-which often didn't become apparent until after the original tread was buffed off-sometimes not even then.
Despite taking special care in inspection and buffing, Bill's shop workers were still rejecting a whopping 13 percent of the newly retreaded radials after the curing operation.
A technical consultant Bill had hired summed up the situation, saying: ``It looks like the manufacturers finally have come up with a tire we can't retread!''
Bill said his firm no longer could justify the expense of operating the shop at a loss. And while closing it wouldn't solve the retreadability problem, the losses from it would be someone else's.
I didn't need to be told how uncomfortable Bill was answering my questions and talking this way. Everyone knew retreading was dear to his heart. In fact, it was through retreading that Bill, one of the early members of the former O.K. Rubber Welders group, had gotten into the tire business some 36 years earlier.
``I'd love to be wrong-but I know I'm not,'' he told me. ``We (passenger tire retreaders) have a problem and there's no reason to push it off to the side. We might as well deal with it.''
Naturally, his frank comments touched off a storm of controversy within retreading circles.
Some people said it would have been better not to have reported news of the plant's closing and the reasons behind it.
Others contended Bill had given up retreading too soon. They said radial casings were improving and eventually would be every bit as retreadable as the bias tires of that day.
Some said Bill's casing figures were ``right on'' and the industry ought to do something to improve the retreadability of passenger radials.
And one or two people dismissed the whole issue simply by concluding Bill ``didn't know how to operate a retread shop.''
What a contrast from that recent night in Dallas when Bill was lauded for his leadership in bringing people into the industry as independent tire dealers.
It's a fact that Bill has helped a lot of people during his long and distinguished career. However, I couldn't help thinking he deserved just as much credit for speaking the unvarnished truth 12 years ago regarding the uncertain future of passenger tire retreading. And once said, he stood his ground and took the heat.
Sadly, the events of the past dozen years have shown the prophetic truth of what Bill modestly had called ``just one man's opinion.''
Since 1982, annual passenger retread production in the U.S. has declined from 25.5 million units to less than 6 million. Meanwhile, the number of retreaders has dropped from 3,350 to 1,442-with the ranks of active passenger shops declining even more. Bill was right about the future of passenger retreading, as the record book shows. But now-just as then-he probably wishes he was wrong.
Mr. Slaybaugh is executive editor of TIRE BUSINESS.